In its first report on school violence issued since the passage of a state law requiring active responses to bullying in schools, Central Regional's middle and high schools recorded 20 incidents of bullying last year.
The 2011-2012 Violence and Vandalism Report, presented by district Superintendent Triantifilos Parlapanides at the Central Regional Board of Education meeting on Thursday night, cited a total of 29 incidents of violence, vandalism and substance abuse in the two schools.
Of those, 20 incidents -- 13 in the middle school and seven at the high school -- fell under the category of bullying, Parlapanides said.
The definition of bullying under the state's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie, is very broad, Parlapanides said.
"If you call someone fat, that is considered bullying," he said.
But he and the principals of the two schools -- Douglas Corbett from the high school and Dennis Driber from the middle school, along with middle school vice principal Joseph Firetto -- said the end result is positive.
"It is a lot of paperwork," Parlapanides said.
A report of bullying sets off a chain of events, including an investigation that must be conducted within 10 days of the report, a determination of whether the event truly was an instance of bullying, and then determining how to deal with the situation, he said, all of it governed by very specific guidelines.
"It used to be I could call both kids in together, talk to them, get them to say what they wanted out of the situation and get them to shake on it, and move on," Parlapanides said. Now, "we have to interview the kids separately," so that the bully cannot affect how the victim answers questions about the situation. The district also has to interview any other students who witnessed the incident, teachers or other school personnel who may have witnessed it, before making a determination.
"It's a much more lengthy process now," Parlapanides said. "But it is worth it to keep our kids safe."
Complicating matters, Corbett said, is the fact that so much more of the bullying begins outside of school on social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and more.
But the trouble is those issues never stay outside of school, Corbett said.
"It's not (an outside-of-school problem) when it causes a ruckus (in school) the next day," Parlapanides said.
One incident last year involved an account on Tumblr, a social media site that consists primarily of photos, where someone posted photos of female students and called it "The Whores of Central," Parlapanides said.
Firetto said the difficulty is the process of investigating complaints is that it can be very disruptive.
"You're pulling kids out of class to talk to them" about an incident, so you're disrupting the learning process, he said.
On the positive side, however, students found to be bullying others are forced to go to counseling sessions to learn about bullying and to help teach them the behavior is wrong, Firetto said.
"The therapeutic piece (of the anti-bullying effort) is the most important piece," he said.
The report breaks the incidents down by school and by the part of the year. From September to January, the middle school had eight bullying incidents reported. Of those, one was ruled to be unfounded. Seven others resulted in the offenders being assigned to counseling and other services.
The high school had five incidents reported during that time, with all five resulting in offenders being assigned to counseling and other services. There were 21 student offenders in the September-to-January period, and 12 students who were victimized.
In the second part of the year, from February to June, there were five bullying incidents reported in the middle school, and two in the high school, Parlapanides said, with nine student offenders and eight students victimized.
"Our teachers give us a lot of heads up," Parlapanides said, letting administrators know if a student seems distressed or notifying them of other things they observe, which helps the district combat problems.
In addition to the bullying, the report noted four incidents of vandalism -- two in each half of the year -- and five incidents of substance abuse. Three police complaints were filed in the vandalism incidents in the first half of the year, none in the second half, though police were notified twice without complaints being filed.
Parlapanides said the bulk of the district's students are good kids, respectful and supportive of each other, and said the most clear demonstration of that has been the students' response to the Choice students, who came to Central from other districts throughout the county.
"They have been making those kids feel right at home," he said.
But the role of the Internet in bullying issues means the district needs to come up with some very clear policies regarding the use of technology, since the entire district will soon have wi-fi throughout the schools, he said.
"We don't want kids bullying each other on the Internet in school," Parlapanides said.